Think Again

Explaining Islam to non-Muslims is part of Reza Aslan’s stock-in-trade, but the Iranian American, who broke his own “no-Fox rule” when he taped a headline-making segment on the network last week, is more than a talking head

This interview originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Los Angeles magazine

When TV news producers or opinion page editors find themselves in need of a Muslim American voice to weigh in on matters ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, they inevitably turn to Reza Aslan. Born in Tehran and raised in California, Aslan seems tailor-made for the post-September 11 American media market. A creative writing professor at UC Riverside, with a Ph.D. in the sociology of religions, he’s just as comfortable talking about Angelina Jolie as he is about Sharia law. No god but God, his best-selling distillation of Islamic faith and history for a Western audience, has been translated into 13 languages. Although his hair is graying at the temples, he’s boyish looking at age 38. Aslan recently moved from Santa Monica to the Hollywood Hills. But he’s out of town much of the time, video blogging from ground zero, sitting down for Meet the Press, and traveling from Salt Lake City to Rotterdam to promote Tablet & Pen, the just-published anthology of Middle Eastern literature he edited. We spoke with Aslan about his religious beliefs, his independent film studio, and his mounting frustration with the limits of punditry.

After seven years on television and in the op-ed pages, how would you rate your effectiveness in shedding light on Islam? 
To be honest, you caught me at a weird time. I’ve spent most of this last decade writing books and articles and doing media appearances and working with organizations and interfaith councils. I’ve been essentially doing my best, or at least my duty, in trying to educate people and provide them with the information they need to hopefully reframe their perceptions not just of Islam but the Middle East—a part of the world that has been misunderstood as monolithic and unchanging. And what I’ve concluded over the last three or four months with this unprecedented wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, or Islamophobia—whatever you want to call it that has gripped this country and become disturbingly mainstream—is that I’ve completely wasted my time. I could write a dozen books and do a hundred interviews on every media channel in the world, and I am not going to shape the way people think as effectively as I would if I could just focus on what I really want to do, which is storytelling.

What would you say is the most crucial message you’ve been unable to get across? 
That there is absolutely nothing different, nothing exceptional, nothing extraordinary about either Islam or Muslims. That the people who practice the religion in all of its diversity do so the same way that every other person of faith practices every other religion in the world.

It seems the message failed to reach Juan Williams, who was fired from NPR a few months back after telling Fox’s Bill O’Reilly about how seeing traditionally dressed Muslims on airplanes makes him nervous. The larger issue that got lost in the hue and cry about Juan Williams is that Fox News has managed over the last year to turn anti-Muslim bigotry into ratings gold. The nightly presence of the most watched cable news channel is so grotesque, so horrifically racist, whether it’s raising hysteria about the Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, warning about Muslims taking over America, or predicting that Sharia law will descend over the United States. It’s no wonder Fox News offered Williams a $2 million job. The views he espoused are the kind you get rewarded for on Fox.

You don’t seem to have much of a presence on the Fox News Channel. 
I’m proud to say I now have a no-Fox rule. My publicists all know not to answer the phone if Fox calls. My experience early on with Fox News was so outrageous. It was very clear that there was no intention of having a rational debate or discussion about news and that my job as a guest was essentially to be the platform through which whatever clown on the other side could espouse their bigotry and ignorant ideas. It’s entertainment, not news, and I’m not going to be the dancing monkey for Fox.

Your family moved from Tehran to Northern California in 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution. Why did you leave?
My family thought of it as a temporary thing, which is why we left with almost nothing, just a suitcase each. My father, who is a famous atheist in Iran, didn’t believe Khomeini when he said he was going to go back to the mosque and leave the government to the politicians. So as a safety measure my father decided that he would take his family to the United States for a brief while, and after things settled down, we would return. Of course things never settled down, and next thing you knew, 30 years had passed.

Did you experience a lot of prejudice growing up? 
We faced an enormous amount of bias, no question about it. At the time it wasn’t so much anti-Islam bias as anti-Iranian bias after the hostage crisis and the anti-American rhetoric coming out of the Iranian government. There were all these anti-Iran songs and anti-Iran characters on television, so it was hard not to be made fun of and not be afraid of one’s identity.

How did you deal with it? 
I spent most of the ’80s pretending to be Mexican, and I was very successful at it. We were living in immigrant communities in Northern California. There were lots of Mexicans around, and I learned Spanish. I look Mexican, and my name sort of has a Mexican tinge to it, so it was very easy to pass as Mexican in the early 1980s.

You’ve said that you started out wanting to be a novelist. When did you decide that was your calling? 
In high school. I went to a really, really crappy high school in San Jose—the kind of school where you weren’t allowed to wear anything predominantly red or black. And at a very early age I began to take my education into my own hands. I remember in sophomore English the rest of the class was reading The Last of the Mohicans, which I found to be unreadable. I was almost done with The Brothers Karamazov, and I remember so clearly coming to the end of that book and my teacher repeatedly warning me to put the book away because we were discussing James Fenimore Cooper. Finally he caught me one time too many. I just want to emphasize that I was kicked out of my English literature class for reading Dostoyevsky. Instead of going to detention I sat on a bench and finished. I remember as clear as day turning the last page and thinking to myself, “This is what I want to do. I want to make other people feel the way Dostoyevsky just made me feel.”

You mean like total crap? 
Like total crap. No, it was like suddenly there’s this window in my soul that’s been opened to a whole set of emotions that I didn’t know existed, let alone that I could have access to. I eventually decided I’d get a doctorate in religious studies and teach religion, and that would pay the bills while I wrote books.

So how did you go from aspiring novelist to the nation’s leading commentator on Islam? 
In between my master’s at Harvard and my Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara, I went to the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and really honed my craft. I wrote a novel and got a literary agent. We were going to shop it around when she asked me if I had any other projects in mind—fiction or nonfiction. I said that as a matter of fact, I had been thinking of writing a book on Islam. This was 2003, and as you can imagine, dollar signs flashed across my agent’s eyes. The interest in that book, which ultimately became No god but God, was so enormous that we took the novel off the table and just sold that. When it was time to write a second book, the editors at Random House were insistent on another nonfiction book. To be honest, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I wrote Beyond Fundamentalism and went back to Random House and said, “OK, now it’s time for that novel you’ve had for years.” And they said, “Yeah, nobody wants to read novels. How about one more nonfiction book?” We signed a deal with them that forces them to release my novel after my next nonfiction book: It’s a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. You may have heard of him? Not Jesús the gardener—Jesus the carpenter. It is a narrative of who this person really was without using the Gospels as my main source material.

Were you religious as a kid? 
Back in Iran, we were sort of upper-middle-class intellectuals, and we were never particularly religious. I never grew up with any religious instruction whatsoever. My acceptance of my Muslim identity came when I was a freshman in college, and it arose very much as an intellectual pursuit rather than from any kind of spiritual desire. My studies on the history of religions gave me an enormous amount of exposure to all the world’s great faiths. As a person who does believe that there is something beyond the material realm, that there is actually a transcendent and divine presence that impels creation—and as someone who wants to commune with that divine presence—I was able to look at all the world’s greatest religious traditions and the answers and the metaphors they provide to help you make sense of the human condition. And the one that rationally, not spiritually but rationally, made the most sense is Islam.

Why Islam? 
The core theological principle of Islam is the unity, the indivisible nature, of God—that there is no division between the creator and the created. If God is one, then all creation is one. That sense of divine unity, of the oneness of creation, is something that in my spiritual endeavors makes a lot of sense.

With all the sectarianism and bloodshed between the Sunni and Shia branches, is this Islamic concept of unity still so prevalent? 
It is prevalent. That is the foundation of the Shahadah. It’s the very core of Islam. Now just because there are ultra-orthodox salafiyyin who have a different interpretation of it and make some noise—that means nothing at all. People can say that the core of Jesus’s teaching is compassion. So OK, how do you explain the nutcases who are protesting abortion clinics or saying, “Fags are going to hell”? The answer is, “Well, they’re not really living up to Christian principles.” OK, they’re not living according to your interpretation of Christian principles. But I’m sure they would disagree with you. I guess what I’m saying is, everything you’re saying about Islam is not unique to Islam. So it’s not extraordinary in any way.

How does your film company, BoomGen Studios, figure into your public reorientation? 
It sounds like a cliché, because it is, but movies have the power to not just change people’s minds but to change the narrative with which people understand the world and their place in it. We started out first and foremost as a service provider—providing scripts, cultural consulting, niche marketing, and publicity to major studios. Prince of Persia was our first opportunity to work on a film, soup to nuts. We came in at the beginning with the script for Disney; we provided a series of comprehensive notes about the story. Originally as the project was conceived it was very much rooted in a particular historical time—which created not just historical difficulties but brought up some possible cultural sensitivities that we thought would be avoided if you just set it in mythical times. That was the advice they took most to heart. We provided a second set of notes when they showed us the rough cut. Then we put our publicity and marketing strategy to work. We developed this really effective proprietary strategy to target these niche communities: Middle Eastern, Iranian, Muslim American—a core of active, interested participants who want this to succeed.

You’re going to produce your own movies in addition to consulting? 
Right now we have three scripts we’re concentrating on. One of them was written by me—a political thriller, based on an Iranian film from the 1980s, that we are in the process of shopping around and getting some development funds for.

Where are you going for financing? 
By mission and design, the Muslim community is our sole source of funding. And, let’s be frank, they’re rich. These are people who just finished selling their tech companies and people who are enormously successful entrepreneurs. Just look at the executive boards of Google or Yahoo and see the Middle Eastern and South Asian names.

You’re also doing social networking? 
AslanMedia is the nonprofit version of everything else that I do. We have a Twitter wire service, where you can sign up and get every hour or so a 140-character headline with some interesting bit of news or information about the Greater Middle East, whether it’s the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or what’s going on in Iran or Pakistan. You get information about art. We have a book club that’s getting a lot of attention now. Every month everybody in the service reads one particular book, and we have a video interview with the author or a podcast. Then once a month we gather together on Twitter for a two-hour book discussion. We have 10,000 subscribers, so it’s small. But considering that it’s six months old, we’re getting there. And considering that I’m not tweeting about what restaurant I like or where I just took a shit…

So with the film company, the Twitter service and book club, and your return to the novel, will you be cutting back on your TV commentary and op-ed pieces? 
No, I’m just going to do all of these things. I’m going to continue to do my political commentary and my media analysis. Also, I’m a tenured associate professor at UC Riverside. I came to the conclusion that as long as you don’t sleep, you can do all of these things at once. So I decided to cut out sleeping.

One last thing: I understand that in your free time you like to surf. Stylistically, how would you describe your surfing? 
Wobbly is the best adjective to describe my surfing prowess.

Photograph by Gregg Segal